Donald Dean lied about his age to enlist in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and serve on the Western Front, where he worked his way up from Private to acting Captain. It was in the last weeks of the war, late in September 1918, that he won his VC for leading a platoon in the determined defence of a recently-captured and isolated trench against repeated German counterattacks. In one of these attacks, the Germans actually broke into the trench, forcing Dean to break off a radio call for artillery support with the words ‘The Germans are here, goodbye!’ Refusing to be overrun, he personally killed four of the Germans before they were finally evicted.
Dean also served in World War II, witnessing the fall of France in 1940 and claiming to be the last Brit to get out of Boulogne. His frank account of the evacuation challenges some cherished conceptions and is very critical of the conduct of the Irish Guards in particular. He went on to fight in Madagascar, Sicily and the Italian mainland. Donald Dean died in 1985.
Military historian Terry Crowdy has edited Dean’s letters and diaries, never previously published, adding additional notes and material from official reports to give the reader context. The result is a moving, often amusing and inspiring portrait of a little-known hero of two world wars.
This is part of his account of the rear guard action in Boulogne, on 23 May 1940, when the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) fought alongside the Irish and Welsh Guards. Donald Dean was in command of the AMPC, whose role was to provide unarmed labour support to the British Army. By this time Dean had armed his men by taking weapons off the infantry who had already been evacuated by ship from Boulogne:
This meant that 5 Group had to form and man eight road blocks, which we proceeded to do mainly with lorries abandoned by the quayside. As I had no signallers I arranged my Group HQ as near as possible to the Welsh Guards Bn HQ and left runners there to bring any messages.
Shortly afterwards one of my posts was attacked by a German tank. Several rounds were fired at it from a Boys anti-tank rifle but the bullets just bounced off. It did, however, withdraw round the corner.
Shortly afterwards either this or another similar tank tried another of our road blocks where lorries were merely placed across the road, these it just pushed out of the way and lumbered on towards the larger block we had been making slightly further back, again basically of lorries and cars reinforced with furniture and materials from bombed houses.
We fired at the tank with rifles, as we had nothing else, but naturally did not stop it. It shelled us with a light gun and caused us several casualties and then, after a pause for consideration, finding that we only had rifles, it proceeded to climb very slowly over our block. We were prepared for this and, the firing having brought me early to the spot, I had some lorry petrol tanks punctured with a rifle and my revolver, the tank being unable to shell us during its crushing climb, and we set fire to the lot. A sheet of flame went up and the tank backed hastily off and halted once more almost round the last bend.
Our road block burned for quite a while and allowed for a further block to be made under cover of smoke, which we kept going. Meantime we were being dive-bombed and shelled, mostly by mortars I think, and bullets were flying in all directions. We found that many of the latter were coming from over the river from the direction of the harbour where Brigade HQ was established with some odds and ends of troops.
It was apparent that some inexperienced troops were firing wildly at anyone who moved on our side of the river so I got into my little 8hp car and dashed across the main road bridge to visit Brigade HQ and ask if this firing could be checked. While crossing the bridge my car was riddled by a burst of machine-gun fire (whether enemy or ours I never knew) and the engine put out of action; I was going so fast that I put the car out of gear and coasted the rest of the way across and under cover.
Brigadier Fox Pitt promised to try and stop this promiscuous shooting but was uncertain whether his odds and sods could be restrained by the few Guardsmen he had with him. Shortly afterwards Lieutenant Colonel Stanier, CO 2nd Welsh Guards, sent a similar request over for the shooting to be stopped. I walked back across the bridge, having now no car (this was the second put out of action while I was driving in twenty-four hours, the first was by bomb splinters) and rejoined my Group, where things had quietened down a bit.
All civilians, except a few dead lying about the streets, were well hidden. Some gendarmes came and told us that there was firing from a corner house inside our defences. I informed Lieutenant Colonel Stanier, but he said that he had no one left to deal with this. I therefore took a small party, posted some to fire at anyone showing themselves and to attract attention while the rest of us worked round back yards and got into the house.
We found several men in civilian clothes firing at our men, but no one had the time or opportunity to question them. We assumed they were 5th Columnists and acted accordingly. Some of my men shot a man dressed as a priest using a sub machine gun, thought to be of German make.
Shortly afterwards the gendannes brought three men to me dressed as civilians and asked me to shoot them as they were 5th Columnists and spies. I said, ‘In that case why not shoot them yourselves?’ ‘Ah,’ they said. ‘If we do and the Germans get here tomorrow, we shall be shot ourselves but if the British Army does it, all is well’. I saw their point of view and told my French interpreter to question them. He said that he could not say that they were Germans, though he thought so, but they were certainly not French.
We learned that the Irish and Welsh Guards were being forced back. There was much ‘wind up’ generally. Lieutenant Colonel Stanier and his senior officers were perfectly cool and collected, but I was very disgusted at the lack of control of some Welsh Guards junior oificers. I had to stop two patrols of Welsh Guards, one under a CSM and the other under a very young officer, from shooting up the town as they fired bursts at every open window and while admittedly ricochets were flying around, I could not see any further signs of actual firing at us. Lieutenant Colonel Stanier spoke very highly of my 150 Pioneers attached to his battalion and told me that he had lost about 100 men so far and the Irish Guards about twice that number.
During the afternoon I got a message, by one of my runners, that the Guards were all withdrawing to the harbour, that the Welsh Guards were already crossing the river to get there and that the bridge would be blown up soon. I was surprised as I thought we had matters under control on our side but I had no option but to confonn. Unfortunately the Welsh Guards had moved back before I had time to start withdrawing my roadblock parties and although I used my reserve (which being infantry trained I had naturally arranged to have), to cover my exposed right flank, the Germans already had parties behind my forward posts.
I took some of my scallywags of Glasgow Irish, No. 47 Coy, and we fought our way up and relieved two of them but two were overrun while the other four posts were able to retire without trouble. This street fighting with untrained and badly equipped men was a bloody affair and we had a number of casualties before all 5 Group still standing were across the river, where I followed them with the rearguardf.
It was not a CO’s job really but one could not expect our untrained men to do it on their own and they backed me up very well. I was very fortunate with most of my officers though the proportion of oflicers to other ranks in the AMPC as compared with the infantry is laughable when it comes to fighting.
After the Guards had left we followed them across a bridge and everyone concentrated in fish market sheds and docks and Gare Maritime. All our wounded were collected and looked after by our MO Lieutenant Mellow (stout fellow). Our unanned men were still with us but further rifles were collected from the quayside. I collected all I could muster and manned the barricades.
We were told by a Welsh Guards officer (name unknown) that they were all embarking on destroyers with the Irish Guards and it was up to us to look after ourselves. I tried unsuccessfully for an hour or more to find Brigadier Fox Pitt or Colonel Stanier for information, but by the time I got there he and the majority of the brigade had already embarked in some naval craft.
I found some of my 150 men who had been attached to the Welsh Guards and they said that although they had fought with them and the Guards had eaten their rations, they had been told to stand back and let the Guards embark in the vessels, which were for the Guards! When some of these Pioneers tried to embark with them in spite of this strange order, they were accused of impeding the withdrawal of the Guards!
Meantime, of course, I and the bulk of my Pioneers were fighting a rear guard action and covering the Guards’ embarkation. Having arranged my defence at the barricades I tried to find someone in any kind of command on the harbour station, but finally concluded that there was no one senior to myself left in Boulogne.